Hanna Starobinets uses a computer in 1989, while her mother waits her turn to work on her PhD thesis.

Tomorrowland is Around the Corner

Columnist
Graduate Division

Fabulous innovation is all around us. A typical day in 2015 would be so fundamentally unrecognizable to someone in 2000 that the phrase “I’ll snap a picture on my phone and send it to you through my watch” would probably not go down well in most social situations.

The difference between my childhood and my younger sisters’ is more pronounced than between mine and my mother’s. I haven’t even gone to my ten-year high school reunion yet, and already school essays are being passed in and corrected on Google Docs, kids are wearing GoPro cameras to their high school graduation, and everyone seems to have forgotten how to use a map.

There was certainly innovation in my childhood, but it felt like it came on more slowly. Computers already existed before our time, they just weren’t home devices until the 1980s. Car phones very gradually ushered in the cell phone. Even the internet was an offshoot of an email system my mother already used before I was born. I don’t know who coined the phrase “The Future is Coming,” but while that expression previously expressed an urgency akin to “go to the bathroom, our train will be here in fifteen minutes”, lately it feels a lot more like someone yelling “think fast!” and throwing something at your face. Given the speed with which the future is flying directly toward our faces, we have a lot less time to respond when deciding how to fund important new ideas or adopt and implement new technologies.

Funding Innovation:

“2014 was a year of notable scientific highlights, including: the first landing on a comet, which has already shed important light on the formation of the Earth; the discovery of a new fundamental particle, which provides critical information on the origin of the universe; development of the world’s fastest supercomputer; a surge in research on plant biology that is uncovering new and better ways to meet global food requirements. None of these, however, were U.S.-led achievements… Hence the wide-spread concern over a growing U.S. innovation deficit, attributable in part to declining investment in research.”

This is the opening statement of a report published in April 2015 by MIT called “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit.” The report was assembled by a committee of MIT professors representing science, engineering, technology, mathematics and economics disciplines and highlights the increased need for progress in this country in areas of research and development including Alzheimer’s disease, cybersecurity, space exploration, plant sciences, fusion energy, infectious disease, robotics and energy.

The report specifically highlights the relationship between the need for progress, lack of recent breakthroughs, and current funding structures in the U.S. While innovative lines of research are ready to take off in laboratories and companies across the country, there is extremely limited funding to support new research and development ideas. Not only are there plenty of innovative ideas out there, but they are not necessarily novel: some research has already been poised to solve problems for years but has been overlooked or undervalued. “As the world struggles to contain the current [Ebola] epidemic in Western Africa, it is clear that there have been many missed opportunities to prepare the tools we now desperately need to detect, treat, and immunize against this still poorly understood disease. How did we come to be so little prepared to confront a disease that posed such an obvious risk to global health?”

In other disciplines, it is becoming obvious that lagging research is losing its opportunity to stake competitive claims in newly evolving markets, for example next generation batteries. While we do have claim to Elon Musk and his seemingly unstoppable innovation in space exploration and electric cars (add to that his recent announcement that Tesla will be selling home batteries to collect and store renewable energy), we need a re-energizing boost of funding to the basic research that will solve tomorrow’s most critical problems.

Source: “The Future Postponed” MIT Report

Futuristic Devices:

First, comes a big innovative idea. What if we could sequence DNA and be able to read and understand it? Then comes the first primitive technology that turns that idea into a reality. Next come improvements (better, faster, stronger) closely followed by expansions of scope (let’s sequence the entire human genome). But the final step that transports an innovative technology into something jaw-droppingly futuristic and straight out of science fiction, is making it tiny.

It is one thing building the first super computer, and it’s entirely another when you can wear it on your wrist.

It is one thing building the first super computer, and it’s entirely another when you can wear it on your wrist. When you can pull it out of your pocket, point it at someone and gather their vital signs. Or when you can identify a species of mysterious plant while crouching in the middle of the rainforest. Tiny devices that carry powerful technologies anywhere you go are reminiscent of the omnipotent Star Trek tricorder (which, incidentally, has its own X-Prize that aims to “bring healthcare to the palm of your hand.”) So, whenever I read about new devices that pack a powerful punch, I see them not just as more gadgets in the sea of modern technology, but as harbingers of a technologically advanced science fiction-like society… that may be just around the corner.

Last year, the British company Oxford Nanopore released the MinION – a handheld, cell phone-sized, USB-powered DNA sequencer – into beta-testers’ hands. MinION uses an electric current to distinguish between DNA bases that are fed through a nanopore and has accurately read sequences up to 91kb in length. Despite initial mixed feelings about its accuracy compared to traditional commercial sequencers, scientists have found incredible utility to such a portable device.

Nature News reported that the MinION’s low cost, small size and sequencing speed has proven extremely useful on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic, where scientists are sequencing Ebola virus genomes from infected patients. Ecologists are carrying the tiny sequencer into forests, where they can sequence local biodiversity on the spot. NASA wants International Space Station astronauts to test it in low gravity, a step that could lead to a mission searching for DNA evidence of life on Mars.

A meeting is set for May 14 and 15 in London to gather beta testers and discuss experiences with different applications and potential future improvements. Near-future improvements would include increasing accuracy over longer stretches of DNA while decreasing the processing steps between collecting a sample and loading it onto the MinION device. Longer-term developments might include modifying the MinION to operate with an iPhone, plugging it into an environment of limitless data that could not just sequence, but also analyze DNA in real-time. Some laboratories have also begun testing the company’s nanopore technology with real-time protein analysis, which would further expand the kind of data scientists could someday collect and analyze instantly and in any environment.

Sources: Nature News, GenomeWeb, Oxford Nanopore